From Bush to beavers. If only there were a Pulitzer for most seamless segue.
I grew up near a small creek. Come each spring, my buddies and I would set about constructing a dam at a particular spot in the creek. The dam itself and the little lake it created served no practical purpose whatsoever—we had no plans to add a power plant and earn ourselves candy & milkshake money by supplying the neighborhood with extra electricity, nor did the reservoir ever grow large enough to allow for meaningful swimming or boating. The creek simply needed a dam. Why? Because it needed a dam, dammit!
And so a dam we put up and maintained throughout the summer months until autumn rains turned our pacific little creek into a raging torrent, which our loosely cobbled-together barrier—basically a pile of small rocks stretching from one bank to the other—was unable to withstand. Then, during the winter, the creek usually froze over. As soon as spring rolled around, we would assess the autumnal and hiemal damage to our precious dam and begin to patch up and rebuild.
In essence, we were exhibiting classic beaver behavior, which goes to show how all mammalian life shares a common origin and that certain primal instincts remain scattered among a wide swath of species irrespective of the actual degree of utility of these instincts to a given species, akin to the presence of vestigial structures such as the human tailbone, which appears to exist solely because members of whatever phylum we descended from had functional tails. (If the creationist reader would care to provide a more plausible explanation, he or she is invited to do so in the comment section below. Emphasis on plausible.)
I had, of course, heard of beavers and could always tell a beaver from a squirrel, albeit perhaps not from a groundhog and similarly-sized rodentry. I also knew that beavers were waterphiles and preferred to live in or near plentiful stores of H2O, but I’d never gotten around to studying them in detail. Until I channel-surfed across a documentary about these amazing little critters on the National Geographic Channel just the other day, I’d had no idea my childhood self shared its natural penchant for building dams with the beavers of this world.
The documentary chronicled one year in the life of an American beaver family at their home pond in Montana (or northern Wyoming, I forget). Looking like oversized woodchucks kludged together from other animals’ spare parts—rabbit-like teeth that gnaw through tree trunks as if they were breadsticks (no wonder Fred Flintstone used a beaver as a chain saw!), pentadactylic forepaws, webbed hind-feet reminiscent of ducks, and paddle-tails that “could have been borrowed from a platypus”—come spring, these furry engineers, by turning their stretch of river into a pond via the erection of a fairly sophisticated dam they construct mainly from trees felled with their teeth, create an entire ecosystem that benefits a wide variety of other animals, an impressive illustration of nature in perfect harmony.
Alas, besides beauty and equilibrium, nature features a prodigious measure of heart-wrenching brutality, as exemplified by a rather disquieting peripheral incident captured on camera while filming the beavers. A mama elk and her fawn had come to the beaver pond for a drink of water when, unbeknownst to them, a hefty bison had approached. As soon as mama elk noticed the bison, she sensed danger, but at that point it was too late to hit the road, for the baby elk would have been unable to keep up with mom. So mama elk attempted to distract the bison by ostensibly fleeing a short distance in hopes it would come after her and leave her baby alone. The strategy didn’t pan out as planned, as the bison stayed put, and mama elk inadvertently ended up at too great a distance from her little one to protect it. The big bison was now face-to-face with the baby elk, who—filled with youthful curiosity and not sensing any danger at all—toddled up to the funny-looking behemoth to say hello.
Bison subsist on grass, not elk, and this colossal animal couldn’t possibly have felt threatened by the clumsy youngling in front of him. Yet what did the dopey bison do? He just rammed the baby elk with his horns, sending the poor thing sailing through the air several feet, whereupon the unwitting projectile struggled to get back on its little legs. Somewhat dazed and punch-drunk, the baby elk approached the bison once again, as if to say “Hey, I just wanna be friends!” Same response from the bison: a forceful pair of horns right in the ribs.
After the baby elk had thrice been tossed through the landscape thus and now just lay there in the grass, injured and unable to get up again, the brutish assailant apparently got bored and sauntered off. Mama elk returned to attend to her ailing offspring. According to the voice-over narration, she spent several hours trying to lick her baby back to life, until the bruised and battered patient finally came to and managed to rise to its feet. The last we saw was the hurting baby elk slowly limping off into the woods behind his mom. No telling whether it would recover or perish, as nature does not permit the injured to survive for very long—there are no emergency rooms in the wilderness, and no disability checks for those who cannot care for themselves.
Watching this, my first thought concerned the responsibility of the camera crew in a situation like this. Instead of just standing there filming the needless clobbering, shouldn’t they have rushed to the victim’s aid? But then, of course, maybe the bison episode had been captured with a zoom lens from too far away. Even if the crew had been close-by, the question arises whether potentially saving an elk outweighs the risk of having a crew member impaled by a grumpy bovine.
Perhaps, after the bison had departed, they could have radioed for help and arranged for the stricken baby elk to be medevaced to the nearest veterinarian facility. On the other hand, the job of these camera crews is to film the goings-on in nature, not to interfere with what’s happening. If they started shielding animals from animal attackers, they might as well leave their cameras at home, because they’d have their hands full saving lives and rescuing the injured.
Sadly, there is no way to protect animals in the wild from each other, especially given that many depend on killing for their own survival, so this is a moot point.
But this jerk of a bison was something else. We often hear that despite all the cruelty in nature, animals would never behave as humans behave. If animals kill or attack, they do so only because they must, either for food or self-defense, right?
Well, apparently not always. Some animals are just idiots, like people, pardon the somewhat hyperbolic generalization. And it makes sense. After all—unless you are a hardcore anti-evolutionist who believes that humans were created fully-formed and separately from all other living beings, in which case you will beg to differ—we all trace back to common origins; so why should animals necessarily be above base human behavior? Homo sapiens may have taken gratuitous violence to unprecedented levels, but he didn’t invent the concept. Chimpanzees are even known to use weapons, like clubs and rocks, to beat unwanted trespassers to death in the most gruesome manner imaginable.
If animals in the wild figured out how to make cluster bombs and assault rifles, they might behave just like us. Maybe worse. Who knows.